‘Uyghurs for sale’: Report exposes forced labour beyond Xinjiang, implicating major brands

The Chinese government has secretly transferred thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority citizens from Xinjiang to factories across the country, according to a new report that implicates brands including Apple, BMW, Google, Nike and Samsung.

At least 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred out of Xinjiang and are working under conditions that “strongly suggest forced labour” at factories across China, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report said.

These factories supply scores of well-known global brands spanning the technology, clothing and automotive sectors.

83 brands named and shamed

The report identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies “directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labour transfer programs as recently as 2019”, with some brands linked to multiple factories.

One factory where Uyghur workers were sent in July 2019 listed CRRC – a Chinese state-owned rail manufacturer currently building trains in Melbourne, Australia – among its customers.

The brands named in the report were:

  • Tech: Acer, Apple, Amazon, ASUS, Cisco, Dell, Founder Group, General Electric, Google, Hisense, Hitachi, HP, HTC, Huawei, iFlyTek, Japan Display Inc, Lenovo, LG, Meizu, Microsoft, Mitsumi, Nintendo, Nokia, Oculus, Oppo, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Siemens, Sony,Toshiba, Tsinghua Tongfang, Vivo, Xiaomi, ZTE
  • Clothing: Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Carter’s, Cerruti 1881, Fila, Gap, H&M, Hart Schaffner Marx, Jack & Jones, Lacoste, L.L.Bean, Li-Ning, Nike, The North Face, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, Skechers, Tommy Hilfiger, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, Zara, Zegna
  • Consumer goods: Bosch, Electrolux, Haier
  • Cars: BMW, BAIC Motor, Changan Automobile, GAC Group, Geely Auto, General Motors, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, MG, Mitsubishi, Roewe, SAIC Motor, SGMW, Volkswagen.
  • Other: Alstom, Bombardier, BYD, Candy, CRRC, Mayor

ASPI gave the companies a chance to respond to the allegations prior to the report’s publication.

Adidas, Bosch and Panasonic said they had no direct contracts with the suppliers.

But none of the companies were able to completely rule out a link further down their supply chain.

However, American clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch told The New Daily that it had cut dies with suppliers suspected of using forced labour independently of the ASPI report.

An Abercrombie & Fitch spokesman said the firm had stopped sourcing from one of the factories named by ASPI as a supplier following a “regular review” last year.

“In 2019, as part of our regular review of our global supply chain, we decided to stop sourcing from this spinner from 2020 onwards for any of our company’s brands; we formally instructed our vendor not to source any material from this spinner,” a statement by the firm said.

Abercrombie & Fitch “does not believe” it sources from either of the two other factories named by ASPI as its suppliers, the spokesman said.

“As a company, we are committed to ensuring our products are only made in safe and responsible facilities, and we believe that business should only be conducted with honesty and respect for the dignity and rights of all people.”

Global supply chain ‘tainted’

Titled Uyghurs for sale: Re-education, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang, the report was written by researchers from ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre.

Lead author Vicky Xiuzhong Xu said the findings show that forced Uyghur labour “is now a global problem”.

We are seeing the practices of the ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang being exported to major factories across China and implicating both global brands and their hundreds of millions of consumers.’’

– Vicky Xiuzhong Xu

Global brands “all have in common” a supply chain that “appears to be tainted by forced and surveilled labour”, Ms Xu said.

“At no stage can we forget this forced and surveilled labour is coming from one of the most repressed regions of the world, where huge parts of the population remain under active surveillance, house arrest or arbitrary detention,” she said.

China has already attracted “international condemnation for its network of extrajudicial ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang”, but the research exposes “a new phase in China’s social re-engineering campaign targeting minority citizens”, the report said.

Ms Xu warned that companies using forced Uyghur labour in their supply chains could “find themselves in breach of international and domestic anti-modern slavery laws”.

Uyghurs transferred despite COVID-19 outbreak

Between 2017 and 2019 at least 80,000 Uyghur workers were transferred out of Xinjiang and assigned to factories through labour transfer programs under a central government policy known as ‘Xinjiang Aid’, the ASPI report said.

The estimated figure is “conservative and the actual figure is likely to be far higher”, it said.

The transfers from Xinjiang to factories in eastern and central China have continued in 2020, despite much of the country remaining in lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The practice marks a new phase of China’s crackdown on the Uyghur and other Turkic minorities, following official claims that detained minorities had been freed, the researchers said.

Some factories appear to be using Uyghur workers sent directly from ‘re-education’ camps, they found.

Cases of “disturbing forced labour practices” were outlined in the report, but the researchers said it was “impossible to confirm whether all employment transfers from Xinjiang are forced”.

Uyghur workers transferred from Xinjiang face harsh conditions and strict surveillance, the report said.

“In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances,” it said.

Chinese authorities and factory bosses manage these Uyghur workers by ‘tracking’ them both physically and electronically.

Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement,’’ the report said.

One provincial government document obtained by the researchers described a central database that extracts information from a WeChat group, and an unnamed smartphone app that tracks the movements and activities of each worker.

The report also revealed that Chinese government officials and private brokers were paid a price per head for workers on the labour assignments.


As major brands go into damage control, here’s how you can end forced labour

Some of the nation’s biggest brands are in damage control following allegations of forced labour in their supply chains, but modern slavery experts say it should come as no surprise.

On Monday night ABC’s Four Corners aired Tell The World, claiming that the Chinese government has been systematically targeting the Muslim minority Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang province.

Up to a million Uyghurs are thought to have been detained and forced to work in factories and cotton fields in Xinjiang, a place Four Corners reporter Sophie McNeil described as “the world’s largest open-air prison”.

According to Four Corners, brands sold in Australia that source cotton from Xinjiang include Target, Cotton On, Jeanswest, Dangerfield, Ikea and H&M.

Western companies “stand an increasing risk of having products made by forced, or at least highly involuntary, labour”, German academic Adrian Zenz told the program.  

UTS business ethics lecturer Martijn Boersma, co-author of forthcoming book Addressing Modern Slavery, said the news that Australian brands were using forced labour in their supply chains was unsurprising.

In March, Dr Boersma penned an op-ed calling on Australian companies to take modern slavery more seriously.

“There is this incidental outrage every couple of months where we see these companies exposed for using forced labour, but we know it’s happening,” Dr Boersma told The New Daily.

“Especially for those companies that are sourcing from China, where prison labour is very common.”

According to the most recent Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation there were 40.3 million victims of modern slavery, with 24.9 million people in forced labour and 15.4 million people in forced marriage.

Despite the prevalence of modern slavery in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia has lagged behind other countries in cracking down on companies that profit from the practice.

Australia’s first modern slavery laws came into effect on January 1, but do not include penalties for companies that fail to comply.

The federal government’s failure to appoint an anti-slavery commissioner with the power to enforce compliance means that little is likely to change, Dr Boersma said.

This places the burden of choosing slavery-free products on shoppers, he said.

“No consumer wants to be buying a product made by modern slavery,” Dr Boersma said.

“But at the same time when a consumer is doing shopping and choosing a T-shirt and coffee that’s not a consideration – that’s at the forefront.”

While companies may still be “afraid of suffering reputational damage” from a forced labour scandal, a “critical mass” of consumer outrage is required to trigger change, he said.

What can consumers do?

Brands that don’t “actively look for forced labour within their supply chains are ignoring human rights and the reputational risk of being associated with modern slavery,” Walk Free Foundation research analyst Elise Gordon said.

Consumers can help end the use of forced labour in company supply chains by holding brands accountable and buying ethically made products, experts said.

“Consumers should do some research into a company’s labour standards and consider purchasing products that are ethically made,” Ms Gordon said.

“If consumers are unsure where an item comes from or what steps a company has in place to prevent labour exploitation and forced labour, reach out and ask.”

Online tools such as the Modern Slavery Registry can help consumers decide which brands to support.

Consumers are “hungry for information about the supply chains of companies”, Oxfam Australia advocacy manager Joy Kyriacou said.

Ms Kyriacou said that consumers can help by “simply writing to a company that you like and saying that ‘I like to shop at your brand but you’re not transparent, you’re not respecting people’s human rights in the supply chain…and I want to know what you can do’.”